FASTER PUSSYCAT – Babylon: The Elektra Years 1987-1992

Before the arrival of grunge, the US was awash with sleazy bands sporting huge hairstyles and huge attitudes. Guns N’ Roses would go on to achieve world domination, and MTV made huge stars out of many others, including Ratt, Motley Crue and Poison. For every band that hit the big time, of course, there were many that didn’t achieve quite the same levels of success. Kik Tracee, Tuff, and Jetboy were bands that very much fell into this category, along with LA’s Faster Pussycat, but even these “also rans” gained more than their fifteen minutes of fame at the height of the music television boom.

For a lot of rock fans in the UK, the first glimpse of Faster Pussycat came from the Penelope Spheeris documentary ‘The Decline of the Western Civilization, Part II’. Once seen, who could forget that high energy footage of the band tearing through ‘Bathroom Wall’ (soon to become their best known track) in a small sweaty club, or the interview with frontman Taime Downe apologising to Steven Tyler for ripping off his schtick with scarves on a mic stand? They became semi-regular fixtures in the UK rock mags for a time after that too, and although a couple of their albums gained lukewarm press, they briefly became beloved by an audience who just couldn’t get a big enough fix of trashy riffs, grubby lyrics and a band with a real swaggering attitude.

As time passed, Faster Pussycat quickly became at odds with a changing musical landscape, and not long after their first split in 1993 they seemed to be forgotten by all but the very faithful. The lack of rose tinted nostalgia was certainly amplified by the fact that, by 1995, their first three albums – ‘Faster Pussycat’ (1987), ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’ (1989) and ‘Whipped’ (1992) – became almost impossible to find, even on the second hand market. This was especially true of ‘Whipped’, a disc that was certainly underpromoted at the time.

In later years, those albums were reissued in limited numbers – Rock Candy Records issued a limited edition of the debut in 2013, Music On CD put out ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’ in The Netherlands in 2018, and Wounded Bird reissued ‘Whipped’ for the US market in 2005 – but ‘Babylon: The Elektra Years 1987-1992’ provides some long overdue and broader availability for those three career defining releases. The box set will certainly be welcomed by those UK buyers who’ve spent a long time trying to track down ‘Whipped’ on the cheap, and as you might expect, by presenting the albums alongside some welcome rarities for extra period context, HNE Recordings have assembled the set with the same level of care as their earlier Ratt and White Lion reissues. It’s fair to say, though, that some of the material itself isn’t quite in the same league.

When the band were on form, they sounded – and still sound – very sharp. In and out in a little over thirty five minutes, the debut doesn’t drag or leave any real time for deep reflection. It’s main objective is to hit hard and fast, bringing riff after riff. Despite a cheap sounding mix, the material’s sharp edges almost make up for any sonic shortcomings, and the well known ‘Bathroom Wall’, in particular, presents itself very confidently. An obvious homage to classic New York Dolls, its rock ‘n’ roll core is defiantly 70s, even if the sleazy, metal edged sound is firmly derived from a mid 80s stock. As the first verse gains traction and Downe starts to squeal, it’s impossible not to be swept along by the energy, and by the similat drive behind ‘Don’t Change That Song’ when another rousing refrain loaded with shouty voices brings back the heady times of glam’s big haired heyday. Not as melodic as Ratt, or funky as Bang Tango, but with enough balls to win through, its mix of retro trash and Izzy Stradlin-esque guitar work is enough to secure it a place as a genre classic. Even better, ‘Cathouse’ augments the high octane rock ‘n’ roll with a stabbed bar-room piano lick, prefiguring the Quireboys’ classic sound by a couple of years. Throwing out a massive selection of trashy riffs, guitarists Greg Steele and Brent Muscat lead the charge, with Mark Michals bringing up the rear with a rollocking rhythm and loud snare. If the idea of Joe Leste fronting a Faces tribute act loaded on tequila seems cool, it would almost certainly sound like this – a track that makes the debut worth the price of admission.

Elsewhere, ‘Shooting You Down’ and ‘Ship Rolls In’ channel a workmanlike sleaze – all chopping riffs and squealing vocals – and ‘Babylon’ is a collosal misfire. Another great riff and shouty hook can’t make up for an empty repetitive lyric, terrible pun and awful DJ scratching effects that were dated about three months later. Much better, ‘Smash Alley’ tries hard to shake up a fairly formulaic sound with a moody riff borrowed from Duane Eddy and and fat bass groove – one of the only times four-stringer Eric Stacy isn’t completely lost within a very trebly 80s production. On the rare occasion things genuinely slow down, there’s an obvious love for mid-70s Stones and early Aerosmith, and although this band could never claim to be as user-friendly or melodic as either of those legendary acts, ‘No Room For Emotion’ conveys a band with a bursting sense of self belief, with Steele’s chiming guitar sounds capturing an easy cool as he works through something that sounds like a ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ outtake. The slower tempo also allows Downe a little more scope, and even if his scratchy delivery remains an acquired taste, there’s plenty here that Faster Pussycat could be far more than the knockabout goons they first seem.

Overall, ‘Faster Pussycat’ is a decent debut. It’s not a classic by any means, but has an energy and all round naivety that keeps its predictable chops buoyant. At its best, it now sounds like a snapshot of a bygone era, but the time, it strongly suggested the band could go on to bigger and better things.

Unfortunately, those “better things” aren’t especially apparent on 1989’s ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’. It could be argued that the band have grown musically and that the album boasts more expensive production values. However, at 61 minutes, it’s far, far too long, and the extended playing time has a devastating impact on the material’s general energy and punch – both vital ingredients that made the debut work. Also, by increasing the balladry, the slower tracks really lack the impact of the earlier ‘No Room For Emotion’. Unlike the debut, the album is also home to some genuine tat. At the bottom of the pile, a couple of numbers merely aim for shock value in the vulgarity stakes (you’ll find cheap oral sex jokes during ‘Slip of The Tongue’ and BDSM flirtations throughout ‘Where There’s A Whip’), which coupled with musical interests that sound like Pussycat going through the motions, really don’t warrant more than a couple of spins. ‘Arizona Indian Doll’ flirts with an old rock ‘n’ roll pastiche that sounds like Faster Pussycat playing a slower Stray Cats number (badly), and the the acoustic guitars and harmonica moments during ‘House of Pain’ are very much an obvious attempt to jump on the Poison bandwagon. To be fair, Downe’s vocals handle the stripped back sound of the latter well enough despite…almost everything, and guitarist Brent Muscat’s contributions are deftly played; it just comes across as rather contrived. Chucking all of those tracks in the bin – or being kind and issuing them as b-sides – would’ve brought this album down to a leaner and better 39 minutes, allowing some of its stronger moments more of an opportunity to shine.

At the album’s best, tracks like ‘Little Dove’ adapt the previous trash-glam aesthetic with a little more swagger, flaunting a guitar sound that pierces through heavy beats, and ‘Tattoo’ sounds like the most natural follow up to most of the debut, providing a bigger punch to some very New York Dolls derived hard rock. It never pretends to be smart; this is a purely a band at full power, ready to flick the party switch before ‘Ain’t No Way Around It’ mixes the old ‘Cathouse’ sound with the MTV grit of early Ratt, sounding like a winner at every turn. Better yet, ‘Pulling Weeds’ injects a little bit of funk into the band’s tried and tested retro rock, making Faster Pussycat sound like ‘Draw The Line’ era Aerosmith fronted by a scratchy-voiced, attitude-filled guy who’ll stop at nothing to make his point, and ‘Gonna Walk’ could match anything Izzy Stradlin’s Ju Ju Hounds would offer a year or two later. Sometimes it’s really hard to argue with the St. Petersberg Times’ claim that most of this album has “a faceless, but commercial sound”, but if this more commercial FP had any merit, it’s certainly within these more groove-laden workouts.

There are a few great cuts, and there’s no doubt that Faster Pussycat were keen to move forward, but it’s fair to say that ‘WMWIO’ is for fans only. …And by the time the band issued ‘Whipped!’ in the summer of 1992, it was only really the true fans that were left paying attention as Faster Pussycat attempted, somewhat bravely, to swim against an ever changing musical tide. A lot of rock fans were swept up within alternative sounds at that time, and those who weren’t were still besotted with the wealth of treats brought by Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums. Whichever way you look at it, Faster Pussycat were always going to be “also rans”. Nevertheless, ‘Whipped!’ is a decent album – and a strong case can be made for it being the band’s (flawed) masterpiece.

Leading the charge, the lengthy ‘Nonstop To Nowhere’ is barely recognisable as being Faster Pussycat. Musically, it’s far more sophisticated, drawing from melodic hard rock, peppered with a hazy, almost neo-psychedelic feel in places. If it weren’t for Steele dropping in a very 80s guitar solo worthy of a GN’R deep cut of the era, it would have almost as much in common with Tripping Daisy’s fusion of alt-rock and flowery, sixties derived oddness. Even Downe’s more restrained vocal carries hints of Tim DeLaughter in his full pomp, and the addition of a female choir dropping a pop-derived backing vocal lends a great touch. As if to telegraph ‘Whipped!” as the kind of album where anything goes, ‘The Body Thief’ takes an unexpected detour into industrial tinged funk metal – all treated vocals, circular riffs and heavy beats. If the band seemed hell bent on taking on the alternative sounds of the era face on, claws out, it’s here – and what’s more, it really works. Riff-wise, it’s on point with a chunky groove that’s as good as anything else from the time that could’ve been labels vaguely alternative; solo-wise, various angular noises pitched against funk basses hint at a glam-obsessed Infectious Grooves, and a big hook shows how the band haven’t traded in their old, chorus-driven selves completely.

For the old fans, ‘Jack The Bastard’ recycles the trashy feel of the debut, but with fatter bass grooves and a tougher face, ‘Friends’ shows off more of those shameless Faces derived roots rock that would’ve been more popular in the hands of The Quireboys a year or so previously, and ‘Out With A Bang’ is a reminder that the more commercial approach taken on ‘Wake Me…’ wasn’t without merit, and by adding a slightly grittier feel to an MTV friendly sound, the band are able to deliver decent semi-commercial rock. That’s all decent fare in it’s own way, but as suggested by ‘The Body Thief’, the album really shines when unafraid to take cues from more groove oriented influences. The hard edged ‘Madam Ruby’s Love Boutique’ mixes the funk metal sounds of Mind Funk with some massive Aerosmith sass, effectively bringing two moods and eras together with a seamless sound; ‘Loose Booty’ apes the early Chili Peppers with a barrage of silly voices, slap bass and horns, and the swaggering, double-entendre fest ‘Big Dictionary’ is a genuine throwback to glam’s grubbier side, at least lyrically, but musically, it’s desire to tap into the era’s funk metal boom makes it sound contemporary for the era. It didn’t really gain traction up against the ‘Teen Spirit’s and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’s of the time, but heard with some year’s distance, it shows how Faster Pussycat were among the least tired sounding of the big hair acts at the time.

Another highlight, ‘Mr. Lovedog’ channels some great retro rock, again with a slight psychedelic undertone. Written as a tribute to the recently departed Andrew Wood, there’s so much in the arrangement that seems to constantly nod to the brilliant Mother Love Bone, especially from it’s slow pace and the way clean guitars dart between loud snares, before the hazy melody lurking behind a punchier hook comes even closer to reworking bits of tunes like ‘Man of Golden Words’. Lyrically, phrases like ‘holy roller’, ‘mother bone’ and a name check for Pearl Jam ensure that the subject matter isn’t easily ignored, and musically, it shows how much old glam remained at the heart of the Love Bone’s supposedly alternative sound. Each play is both a reminder of Mother Love Bone’s brief time in the sun, and how in daring to cross boundaries, Faster Pussycat were so much more open to the changing tide than most of their peers and fans. Between the love for Wood, the industrial tints of a couple of tracks and a natural affinity with much sharper grooves, the bulk of ‘Whipped!’ suggests the band could have taken further steps into a new world of rock, if only the record company had been more supportive.

Despite a hit and miss approach to almost everything, ‘Whipped!’ is a fascinating example of a band under pressure and forced to adapt, yet coming out winning – certainly creatively. Not all melodic rock/glam bands did so quite as naturally – some, ended up hopelessly out of their depth (Tuff’s ‘Religious Fix’ instantly springs to mind), but for Faster Pussycat, ‘Whipped!’ seems entirely natural. Decades on, it deserves to be thought of as a lost gem.

In terms of bonus materials, ‘Babylon: The Electra Years’ doesn’t offer too much, but hidden within the non album bits are a couple of very welcome additions. Single edits of ‘House of Pain’ and ‘Poison Ivy’ are much of a muchness – certainly here for the sake of completeness – and a remix of ‘Bathroom Wall’ appears to be not much more than the album cut with the annoying elements of ‘Babylon’ added. Three live tracks taken from the ‘Wake Me’ tour are nice to have, though sounding especially clean, leading to suspicions about how live they actually are.

The bonus gems are supplied by a couple of ‘Whipped!’ outtakes and a very familiar cover tune. Originally issued as b-sides back in the 90s, both ‘Charge Me Up’ and ‘Too Tight’ come pretty close to a “Pussycat best” at that time. ‘Too Tight’ revisits a similarly hard, funky groove to ‘Pulling Weeds’ but shows how much better the band are as musicians, able to wield a crunchier sound throughout, without sacrificing on melody. Also, a top notch production job gives the track a bass heavy feel – something that so much of this material sadly lacks – which is far more sympathetic to Taime’s shrill vocal. By the time a taut and very 70s guitar solo rolls into view, it all sounds so effortless. In some ways, ‘Too Tight’ mightn’t seem much more than an early Aerosmith pastiche peppered with a few bluesy guitar licks and the odd shouty refrain, but it has the power and swagger promised by the debut, delivered far more effectively, making it well worth hearing. It’s certainly better than a couple of tunes that actually made it onto the album. ‘Charge Me Up’, meanwhile, throws out a heady blues rock groove driven by massive slide guitars set against funk basses and a driving rhythm, before sliding into the kind of harmonic, horn-led hook that feels like something the much missed Kingofthehill could have recorded.

Finally, taken from the Electra 40th Anniversary compilation ‘Rubaiyat’, Faster Pussycat’s mauling of ‘You’re So Vain’ wobbles between cool and funny, and does so with a genuine glee. Beaten only by Kik Tracee’s unrecognisable take on ‘Mrs. Robinson’ (complete with a Duff McKagan-esque bass, echoing gun fire sounds amd a wall of slide guitars), this becomes a sweaty hard rocker that’s two parts early GN’R and one part Dangerous Toys, with Taime squawking through the accusatory lyric as if issuing a genuine threat. The sleazy anger in the performance is offset by a misplaced backing vocal (cheerfully delivered by an unknown female collaborator), which becomes an important final ingredient in this all too amusing mess. Once heard, this can never be forgotten – in both a good and bad way.

There’s an ironic saying that suggests “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, and that sometimes applies here. For a lot of people, this set won’t win through on pure nostaligia alone. There are some great tracks – particularly on the debut and ‘Whipped!’ – but the “chasing the MTV dollar” nature of most of ‘Wake Me…’ really lowers the batting average. That tricky second album is a sledgehammer reminder of why Faster Pussycat never made it out of the second division: when smoothing out their basic New York Dolls obsessions and playing everything safely, they often lacked the song writing chops of Warrant and the musical skills of Bang Tango, and the edgy vocal performances meant they would never be as user friendly as Poison.

Despite some brilliant tracks, it’s fair to call Faster Pussycat’s core output hit and miss. In terms of “unmissable material”, you’ll find, maybe, fifteen or sixteen essential tunes here, with another half dozen really cool cuts to pad things out. None of that is a reflection on the physical box set, of course – this 4CD clamshell has been curated brilliantly and it’s a reissue that’ll be warmly welcomed by some, but with all the will in the world, you just can’t turn rust into gold. There will be people who love it all unreservedly, but for the more discerning glam fan, it’ll be an uneven ride.
Buy this for ‘Whipped!’ and then consider the rest a welcome bonus.

December 2021/January 2022